US and China push momentum for global climate action with new joint pledges

The US President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping on Tuesday (Nov. 11) jointly announced new limits and targets on climate change the two major emitter countries would comply with post 2020. In the joint statement, released on the sideline of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Beijing, the two leaders said they “will work together, and with other countries, to adopt a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties at the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris in 2015”. The expected global climate agreement will have to reflect “the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances”, the document said.

Recognizing that the United States and China “have a critical role to play in combating global climate change”, and that “the seriousness of the challenge calls upon the two sides to work constructively together for the common good”, the two Presidents presented their respective post-2020 actions to limit carbon emissions.

The United States intends to reduce its emissions by 26%-28% below 2005 level in 2025 “and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%”. According to the White House’s official release, this goal will double the pace of carbon pollution reduction from 1.2 percent per year on average during the 2005-2020 period to 2.3-2.8 percent per year on average between 2020 and 2025, and it  will keep the United States on track to achieve a 80 percent emissions cut by 2050.

On its side, China officialized for the fist time its intentions to peak CO2 emissions “around 2030”, pledging “best efforts to peak early”. It also intends to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030, Xi Jinping stated. Accordinf to US release, this will require China the deployment of “an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030 – more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States”.

The two countries also committed to strengthen their bilateral cooperation on climate change and low carbon development issues, including CCS, smart grids, energy efficiency, phase down of hydrofluorocarbons, clean vehicles, by extending their existing joint institutions, such as the US-China Climate Change Working Group (CCWG), US-China Clean Energy Research Center and US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

The announcement,  “the culmination of months of bilateral dialogue” between the two world’s top emitters, is likely (and intended to) inject strong momentum into the upcoming climate talks in Lima, where all countries will gather on the 1st of December and are expected to lay the groundwork for a new global climate deal to be signed in Paris next year. “If the two biggest players on climate are able to get together, from two very different perspectives, the rest of the world can see that it’s possible to make real progress,” a former US official explaineed in a statement reported by Reuters. It is a “good start for a possible global deal” and “a sign that climate has become the cornerstone issue of US-China cooperation”, experts from both sides told Chinadialogue.

On the other hand, analysts also commented the pledges as “more politically significant than substantive”. Li Junfeng, a Chinese climate policy adviser linked to the National Development and Reform Commission told Reuters that “the statement is a upbeat signal to motivate other countries but the timeline China has committed to is not a binding target”, and that Beijing was not expected to make any significant new commitments next year, adding that it would also be wise not to expect too much of the United States. Greenpeace China campaigner Li Shuo said that the announcement “is very important and positive signal from two major leaders in the world”, but “these targets should be the floor rather than the ceiling of ambition”. China is already planning measures to curb carbon emissions  (including a carbon tax) in order to address its severe air pollution problems and according to recent studies Chinese national emissions could peak well before 2030 (see e.g. here and here).

However, the move remains significant also for US national policy, because with Tuesday’s announcement Barack Obama made clear he is going to follow his climate policy, built on the target of a 17% emission cut below 2005 levels set in 2009 and the Climate Action Plan launched in July 2013. Existing and new commitments are likely to face strong opposition from the Republican-dominated Congress after the recent mid-term elections.


(Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping hosts and addresses the 22nd Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ Meeting at the Yanqi Lake International Convention Center in Beijing, China. Photo credit: Xinhua/Pang Xinglei from APEC website)